Buddhist principles stem from keen observations of the world
as it is. This affinity for an accurate awareness of the natural world has its
roots in the ancient Sanskrit concept of rta, meaning "natural order"
or that "every event has a cause." Consequently, causation plays a central
role in Buddhist thought. Because every event has a cause, the Universe is seen
as interdependent and interconnected, and all things that arise relate to all
other things, a concept known as dependent origination. This concept of dependent
origination and its place in Buddhist thought is one of the major reasons for
the mutual interest between Buddhism and modern science, especially psychology
Given that all things emerge from a kind of cosmic continuity,
Buddhism is well known for its emphasis on non-dualism. Instead of viewing the
world in terms of "good" versus "evil," "liberal"
versus "conservative," "us" versus "them," Buddhism
recognizes that the orientations and views humans take stem from particular perspectives
that each yield their own conclusions (perspective relativism). Though this is
a kind of relativism, Buddhist morality avoids moral relativism by acknowledging
the Universal reality of interconnection and interdependence. A Buddhist cannot
act in any way he or she pleases, in a selfish manner, because hurting others
does not acknowledge this basic reality of interconnection and interdependence.
The acknowledgement of perspective relativism is useful for its practical applications
in everyday life, and to avoid the pitfalls of extremism that arise when one forgets
he or she can only view the world from his or her unique but limited perspective.
The Buddhist Path, a "Middle Path," rejects extremism.
how to obtain reliable information from the world of which we are part and parcel,
Buddhism embraces three primary epistemological (how one comes to know) methods:
1) testimony of an authority;
2) account of an authoritative text; and
personal experience (experiential verification)
All of these components must
be considered, and no single source of knowledge is sufficient to generate an
informed understanding of the world. However, method (3), experiential verification,
plays a particularly prominent role in Buddhism. This is often demonstrated in
the Buddha's famous admonition, "Be a light unto your selves."
(1) and (2) above as valid epistemological methods allows for a social dimension
of knowledge to become part and parcel of an individual's understanding, and this
helps to prevent individuals from accepting extreme views through their personal
experiences alone. It serves the same function as professional associations today,
which help govern the overall direction of individual practitioners in a way that
preserves the integrity of the entire profession. The particularly important method
of (3) experiential verification necessitates consistent Buddhist practice-usually
contemplation and meditation--as this refines the ability of a person to trust
his or her senses through the cultivation of awareness and the implementation
of mindfulness in everyday life. Buddhists posit that cultivated awareness is
a requisite for trusting the information gathered from the senses, so that emotions
and prejudices do not cloud one's judgments. The refinement of one's ability to
accurately perceive the world and thus trust his or her senses is a primary reason
why meditation is central to Buddhist practice.
From a moral standpoint, dependent
origination implies that nothing in the Universe occurs at random, or apart from
anything else. "Randomness" and "accident" are names given
to events that are too complex for the human mind to fully understand. Though
a person does not always intend to take a particular action (what we would call
an "accident"), there are very specific causes that converge and allow
given consequences to emerge. Thus, while most events are beyond the personal
control of human beings, the insight of dependent origination allows us to better
understand the types of actions that will elicit positive or harmonious consequences,
and those that will lead to negative or disruptive results. This is acknowledged
by modern physics, and is what Buddhists call karma. In Buddhism, unlike Jainism,
karma is seen to occur in all actions, and even when someone has achieved enlightenment
("realization"), one's actions create karmic results, though such a
person is said to create harmonious karmic results because of his or her cultivated
insight and awareness.
Related to dependent origination and karma is the Buddhist
concept of "merit." Merit, stated simply, is positive karmic effect
that stems from harmonious action. The knowledge that such positive karmic results
extend to all things, and specifically, all sentient beings is reason for the
Buddhist practitioner to highlight the significance of merit in his or her practice.
Merit, understood in this way, is not an "accumulation" or "storing
up," but rather is continually discharged to all things through the unmediated
and harmonious actions of the Buddhist practitioner. Dedicating the merit that
is discharged during Buddhist practice to all sentient being, for example, is
a symbolic recognition of interdependence and interconnectivity.
of "rebirth" necessarily follows a discussion of karma. What exactly
is rebirth? Unlike reincarnation, which assumes the existence of an existentially
discrete or independent "self" or "soul," rebirth implies
that character dispositions or personality carry over in some form after death,
until that consciousness achieves enlightenment. Upon enlightenment, it is understood
in Buddhism that a person will make a transition into a harmonious phase of existence
because of his or her understanding of reality and actions that stem from this
understanding, but the transition is not independent or separate from everything
else. This is a common source of misunderstanding in Buddhism at this time: that
upon enlightenment, one "exits" existence. This, however, does not take
into account central Buddhist concepts, such as dependent origination, interconnection,
and interdependence. One's liberation after enlightenment is necessarily a liberation
from the unrealities one created oneself through ignorance and delusion of views
and understanding; not a literal liberation into a different realm, or into non-existence
(something that exists cannot "vanish," but can only transform). Buddhist
practices that focus on achieving liberation in other realms or dissolving the
self into a state of non-being, such as some Tibetan and Chinese and Japanese
Pure Land practices, do so for the functional benefit of the practice itself.
A modern or Western interpretation of "rebirth" is that it simply
implies that one is not "annihilated" upon death, and that one necessarily
remains interconnected with the rest of existence. Thus, while loyalty to experiential
verification calls one to refrain from speculating on what exactly happens after
death, it can at least be known--through modern physics--that like all things,
human beings are not "created or destroyed." Whatever the case, we can
at least know that we will remain an integral part of the Universe in some form,
though not in our current form, which includes the "self" or "consciousness"
we know now. This is a valid and widely held interpretation of rebirth in the
In remaining loyal to experiential verification, Buddhism does
not ponder on the question of God or Gods, as such metaphysical inquiries are
beyond the realm of human sensory ability and knowledge. Thus, it is important
to recognize that while Buddhism does not answer or speculate about the question
of theism, it does not deny it either. From the Buddhist perspective, humans are
charged with dealing with the issues of everyday life on earth, because here and
now is the location of positive human transformation.